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North to Nowhere

The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America By Nicholas Lemann Alfred A. Knopf, 410 pp., $24.95

NICHOLAS LEMANN'S bleak and despairing story of the poor American black's passage from the dilapidated sharecropper's cabin to the rat- and gang-infested horrors of the urban ghetto opens on the Mississippi Delta, circa 1940. Race is already "The American Dilemma," as Swedish sociologist Gunner Myrdal would phrase it some years later.

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But America is unaware of it. It was a national shame, but a regional problem. In 1940, 76 percent of black Americans lived in the South. "The South, and only the South, had to deal with the contradiction between the national creed of democracy and the local reality of a caste system," writes Lemann, "consequently the South lacked the optimism and confidence that characterized the country as a whole."

When Lemann's story closes 50 years later in Chicago and in a changed Delta, America is acutely aware that race is the national dilemma, though the nation remains bewildered by it and ill-inclined to confront it. The gulf between the middle class - both black and white - and the underclass widens apace.

"The great black migration made race a national issue in the second half of the century - an integral part of the politics, the social thought, and the organization of ordinary life in the United States," writes Lemann, who is a staff writer for The Atlantic. "Not coincidentally, by the time the migration was over, the country had acquired a good measure of the tragic sense that had previously been confined to the South. Race relations stood out nearly everywhere as the one thing most plainly wrong in A merica, the flawed portion of the great tableau, the chief generator of doubt about essentially how noble the whole national enterprise really was." In all, 6.5 million blacks moved from the South to the North between 1910 and 1970. Lemann concentrates his story on those leaving the cotton plantations of the Mississippi Delta for Chicago.

The life they left was stacked against them, because the white man kept the books, and most of the Delta plantation owners were little interested in playing the game honestly. They ran usurious plantation stores and disgraceful plantation schools, which they summarily closed whenever there was work to be done in the fields so that the sharecroppers' children might assist.

The life these migrants found in Chicago was stacked against them too, but after the degradation of the plantation it was not readily apparent. "Black people were regularly charged more rent and paid lower wages than white people, and they were barred entirely from many good jobs," Lemann writes. "What made the South Side look so good 201> was the comparison to the South: money and dignity were indisputably in greater supply in Chicago than in the Delta."

Until World War II, the migration to Chicago was driven by what Lemann calls the "pull" effect, the draw of the opportunities available in Chicago. Following the war, the advent of the mechanized cotton picker made sharecropping obsolete, and the stream of blacks coming to Chicago from the Delta was suddenly a flood, people driven by the "push" effect of migration.

As Lemann points out, pull-driven migrations always proceed more smoothly than push-driven ones. By the 1960s, housing, schools, and the job market in Chicago had all been overwhelmed by the unskilled and poorly educated blacks who had arrived from not only the Delta but from all over the rural South.

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The federal government threw money at the problem without fully comprehending it; many blacks used the government programs and opportunities as a springboard to the middle class. As they left, however, the inner city grew poorer, and the problem grew worse.

Lemann's book is sociology, it is history, it is an insightful examination of altruism and politics at odds with the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations, as well as the Daley political machine in Chicago's effort to make sense of a new political dynamic. But mostly it is a sobering story of human struggle and tragedy.

Lemann looks closely at three people who made their way from the Delta to Chicago - a schoolteacher turned civil servant, a storefront preacher, and an elderly woman named Ruby Haynes whose story drives home the tragedy of the larger story of the urban poor.

Ruby Haynes was born to an unwed teenage mother, spent her youth bouncing from plantation to plantation in the care of aunts, grandparents, and family friends before leaving for Chicago in the late '40s.

In Chicago she worked menial jobs when she could, and went on welfare when she had to. She lost children to death, gangs, and drugs. Yet she has never in her 70-odd years lost her dignity, nor has she abandoned the notion of family or of trying to make a life for herself with the cards she's been dealt.

"I know I don't have what other people have - money, cars - but I never felt lower than other people," she says. "My grandfather always taught me to feel equal to other people - the big-shot people who went to this and that college and have degrees. I can talk just as good as them. I know the words."

Ruby Haynes's fundamental nobility is the story of the triumph of the redoubtable human spirit and the unfailing human capacity for hope. By contrast, the absence of opportunity that has marked her entire life is the story of a country that is facing its most enduring and pressing societal problem armed with little more than hope. Change requires more.

Lemann ends his book with an optimistic afterword, reminding the reader that slavery and segregation were once considered the insuperable problems of race, and it is reasonable to expect that in time the teeming, seething reality of the urban underclass will shame us into corrective action.

The author neglects to mention that the solutions to slavery and segregation were centuries in coming, and the sweeping evidence he lays out in his story belies his hopeful prognosis. Any change is going to have to be preceded by a change in our collective consciousness. "Political support for a concerted effort to help the underclass," he says, "is not likely to materialize until it is understood as a moral cause."

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